CIARAN KNEW HOW HE MUST LOOK: nearly as ragged as the minstrels caroling in the hall. A faint smell of smoke clung to his mantle. The shirt and tunic he wore were none of his own: ill-fitting homespun borrowed from Bri Leith’s groom. Pausing outside the lord’s chamber, he picked the burrs from his hose, shook out his cloak, and rapped lightly on the door. A guardsman opened it; Ciaran stepped into the room with all the dignity he could muster.
A group of men bent over a high wooden table; the lamp above their heads illuminated a pile of parchments spread loosely before them. “So, you saw fit to return to us, did you?” grumbled Tomas, glancing over his shoulder. Observing his nephew’s rough appearance, he straightened and turned to face him. “Body of Christ, boy, you’re raffish as a beggar.”
Ciaran acknowledged his uncle’s assessment with a nod and glanced at the other men. “My lord, might we speak privately?”
Tomas motioned the others from the room. Running a hand through his thick, silvering hair, he fixed his nephew with a hard eye. He held himself erect as a younger man might, but beneath the flickering lamplight, Ciaran noted the creases in his uncle’s forehead and the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes.
Mute tension sprang between them. How is it he knows my sins before I confess them? Ciaran wondered, finding no refuge in the grim, flagrant silence. His skin prickled. This silence was worse than anger; he might defend himself against that. The small, low-vaulted apartment closed around him, the warmth from the fading fire gave him no comfort. He clenched his jaw and stood joylessly awaiting his uncle’s censure.
Tomas appraised him coolly. “What evil detained you this time?”
“A fire, my lord. An accident, I assure you. No harm came to anyone.”
The stern, blue eyes narrowed, displeasure swiftly turning to suspicion. “Was this deliberate?”
Stung by the implication, Ciaran began at once to explain himself. His uncle’s manner quickly silenced him.
“Another accident, Ciaran? For the love of God, when will they stop?”
“I swear it will never happen again.”
“You are aware of the penalty for such a crime.”
“I am,” replied Ciaran. “Death.”
“Look at me, boy.”
Without expression, Ciaran met his uncle’s hard, unwavering glare.
“Let me be plain,” Tomas stated flatly. “You’ve been the Devil’s instrument more than once. My own earthly eyes have witnessed your deeds.”
“You think too highly of me, my lord,” Ciaran protested. “For all my trespasses I am still my father’s son.”
“My brother was a mortal man,” Tomas said. His tone was perhaps harsher than he had intended. He looked away fleetingly, drew breath and regained his composure. “A man not without moral failings, but a decent man, an honorable man.”
A human being. The blade turned in Ciaran’s belly; he took pains not to flinch from it. “You may consider me unnatural my lord, but in my heart, I seek to live by my father’s example.”
For all his years as Ciaran’s guardian, Tomas now looked into his nephew’s face as if sizing up a stranger. “Perhaps you can never truly repent your acts,” he lamented, “however unspeakable. But despite my doubts, I cannot prove your doing was willful.” His eyes grew weary. He waved a hand in defeat. “You seem to attract peril as hound attracts fleas, boy. Apparently, all my efforts to protect you are for naught. But whatever difficulty you got into, you managed by some miracle to disentangle yourself.”
Spared momentarily from additional probing, Ciaran allowed himself a breath. He looked briefly toward the door and yielded to a secret longing: a private bath. But it would have to wait.
“What of the house?” Tomas demanded. Bri Leith is the lion’s share of the dowry.” He shook his head. “We’ll be at war yet over that damned piece of thatch.”
“The damage was slight,” Ciaran reported, “though the lady lost some of her jewels and trinkets. I thought -” A sweetness filled him. He found himself smiling, and then as suddenly, his throat went dry. “Sir. Bri Leith will still make a fine marriage portion.”
“Good. Gwilym will be eased to hear it.”
Ciaran spoke as mildly as he could. “And what of the lady Evaine, my lord?”
“All part of the treaty, my boy. A pity, perhaps, but unavoidable.”
Ciaran swallowed, heartsick. “She’s offered as ransom,” he objected bitterly, “to buy exemption from their greed. They’ll be wanting Cilgerran next, and Narberth itself before long.”
Tomas’s eyes flicked toward the fire. “I’m well-informed of your feelings toward the Normans,” he said. “We’ve maintained a hostile peace these many years, and I’ll agree we’ve had to give up a sizable measure of our lands and our freedom to ensure it. But we’re in no position to strike out against the lords marcher, and well you know it.”
“I don’t disparage their strength,” Ciaran said, making little effort to hide his contempt. “They’re resourceful as Devils. They’ve driven our people out of their valleys and pushed them further and further upland, while we continue to appease them. God’s blood! Why do we endure it?”
“Because we have to,” Tomas reminded him. “Restlessly, perhaps, but we endure it nevertheless. The time will come one day, as the bards have promised, when a prince worthy of our loyalty will lead us to triumph. Until then, we wait, we suffer the indignities of foreign laws and try to uphold what virtue is left to us.”
“Curse them!” Ciaran swore. “I still say we should resist.”
“Resist, yes,” Tomas concurred with cool self-control. “Even if it requires yielding to them temporarily, which is a concept I’m afraid you fail to grasp. Gwilym’s father struck a bargain with the lords of Caer Blaen to avoid a war we could not hope to win. Wed to De Barre, the girl ensures us against any future assault. Refuse to honor that agreement, and they’ll use it as justification for even greater claims.”
Ciaran shook his head, frustrated. Before he could impose any fresh argument, Tomas changed the subject. “I’ve another task for you,” he said, considering his nephew at length. “I understand you’re running courses blindfolded.”
Wariness sprung again in Ciaran. Reason told him this was not to be a tribute to his prowess.
“You’re justly proud of your accomplishments,” Tomas continued, “especially your lance work. But you repeatedly demonstrate a lack of discipline on the field. Wagering, baiting the other boys. There is such a thing as subtlety, discretion – simple tact, for God’s sake.” Tomas paced before the hearth, broad fingers raking his beard. “Skill is paramount if you’re to command your men in a charge. They’ll follow you out of trust, but not if you set them at odds.” He paused, regarding Ciaran impatiently. “Your blow to Gwilym hurt more than his pride; he’s lame as a pauper, and I haven’t heard the end of it since.”
“Gwilym’s been complaining, my lord?”
“Not him, your foster-brothers. For all their unruliness, Gwilym’s finally begun to bring them around. I want him back in the saddle without delay. I had a barber examine his knee. How that fool passes for a surgeon I’ll never know; he only mumbles and hands out useless potions. I want results. And that means someone has to work with Gwilym, get his leg moving again.”
Ciaran caught himself just short of groaning. “Who, me? But, my lord, you can’t mean -”
“I can, and I do.” Tomas, unrelenting, recognized none of Ciaran’s protests. “The penance is just – you caused it, you cure it.”
Ciaran cursed. “You know Gwilym detests me. Why must you force us upon each other?”
Tomas eyed him sharply.
“Aye, your purpose is unmistakable,” Ciaran choked out. “You owe his father; you wish Gwilym your heir instead of me.”
Tomas bridled at his nephew’s insolence; he controlled his temper. “Have sense, for God’s love, or I will place him above you.”
“Christ!” Ciaran said, eyes bright with outrage.
Tomas pointed toward the door. “You’ll do precisely as I order, and with grace, is that clear? You’ve tested my patience enough for one night. You’re relieved of all duties until tomorrow. Now get to your bed.”